In earlier times it seemed that Americans really helped one another. Today we worry about what's happened to neighborliness and charity.
But there are encouraging indications that a far greater proportion of our population is involved in volunteering and giving now than at any other time in our history.
Americans are organizing to influence every conceivable aspect of the human condition. Increasingly, we are willing to stand up and be counted on almost any public issue. We organize to fight zoning changes, approve bond issues, oppose or propose abortion, improve garbage collection, expose overpricing, enforce equal rights or protest wars. We are also pursuing an infinite variety of cultural, aesthetic, religious, educational and avocational activities.
And in the process we raise and give money for a staggering array of causes we believe in.
The National Center for Voluntary Action says that 45 million to 55 million Americans volunteer. The last Department of Labor study on this subject indicated that, in 1974, 24 percent of the U.S. population volunteered. This was an increase of 8 percent from a similar survey in 1967.
According to "Giving USA," published by the American Association of Fund-Raising Councils, Americans gave $35 billion to causes in 1977, an increase of 9.5 percent over 1976. Contrary to popular belief, only 10 percent of this total came from foundations and corporations. Of the overwhelming $30 billion contributed by individuals, 80 percent came from families with incomes under $20,000.
It is bolstering to learn that the participation is widespread. Volunteering and giving now include every economic group. What had largely been the province of the upper economic classes and then of the upper and middle classes has finally broadened to include all parts of society.
It is true that government has far outdistanced charitable giving and that today government has assumed many of the obligations previously borne by independent institutions. In significant part, this is the result of our awareness that democratic government is the basic representative of the people when problems are so large as to call for the ultimate in organized neighborliness.
The good news about our caring society is tempered by a significant degree of isolation and coldness that permeates our relationships. These conditions are exacerbated by the discouraging number of people who justify "mefirst" behavior on the grounds that things are terrible and will only get worse. Fortunately, the significant majority still recognizes that even if our world and our society seem at times to be far less than ideal, more "me-firsters" will only make it an awful lot worse.
We have also been faced with some growing public reaction of "let government do it -- that's what our taxes are for," but people of all philosophical and political persuasions are beginning to understand the practical limitations of big government.
One of the most encouraging trends in our country is the groundswell of neighborhood activity and organization. People have come to realize that if they depend on some grand design from above to produce relief and direction, they will wait forever. If, as has been the pattern, giving follows the interests and activities of volunteers, it is likely that we will also see a major swing of giving into neighborhood-related projects.
The Gallup polling organization recently completed two surveys revealing that people overwhelmingly are willing to get involved in an unpaid way to improve their communities. Seventy percent of the adults surveyed in urban communities are "willing to serve on committees, to participate in neighborhod-betterment activities, or to assist in the performance of social services." From this and other experiences, George Gallup concludes, "for more than 40 years, we have been polling the people of the nation. And out of this experience I have come to the conclusion that our nation's greatest resource is the talent and brains of our citizens and a willingness to use them in the service of the nation."
Our heritage of people's humanity to people, begun in those important early days, is alive and growing. Perhaps it is the strongest factor in our national development.
Through their voluntary initiative and independent institutions, ever more Americans worship freely, study quietly, experiment creatively, serve compassionately, advocate aggressively and contribute generously. These national traits are beautifully constant and constantly beautiful. It is another part of our freedom that we need to vigilantly protect.